RESPONDENT: William H. Sorrell et al.
LOCATION: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
DOCKET NO.: 04-1528
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
CITATION: 548 US 230 (2006)
GRANTED: Sep 27, 2005
ARGUED: Feb 28, 2006
DECIDED: Jun 26, 2006
Brenda Wright - argued the cause for Respondent, Vermont Public Interest Research Group
James Bopp, Jr. - argued the cause for Petitioners
William H. Sorrell - argued the cause for Respondents, Sorrell, et al
Facts of the case
In 1997 Vermont passed a campaign finance law, Act 64, which imposed strict limits both on expenditures by candidates for office during the election cycle and on the contributions of individuals, political groups, and parties. Neil Randall, a state legislator, sued Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, arguing that the limits were unconstitutional infringements on First Amendment freedom of speech. In Randall's view, the Supreme Court had declared all expenditure limits unconstitutional in Buckley v. Valeo, and Act 64's contribution limits were unconstitutionally low. Sorrell countered that Buckley was outmoded because that Court had not considered one of Vermont's justifications, namely that expenditure limits prevent candidates from spending too much time trying to raise money. Sorrell also argued that Vermont's interests in combating corruption and ensuring fair elections justified the contribution limits. The District Court struck down the expenditure limits, but upheld most of the contribution limits. Only the limits on contributions by political parties - under which national, state, and local parties together could give only $400 to a statewide candidate - were unconstitutionally low. Both parties appealed the ruling to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The Circuit Court reversed, ruling that all of Vermont's contribution limits were constitutional. The Second Circuit also found that the expenditure limits would be constitutional as long as they were "narrowly tailored" to the state's interests.
(1) Do expenditure limits for political candidates violate the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech? (2) Are Vermont's contribution limits of $200-$400 per candidate for individuals, political groups, and political parties unconstitutionally low under the First Amendment?
Media for Randall v. SorrellAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 28, 2006 in Randall v. Sorrell
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 26, 2006 in Randall v. Sorrell
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
Justice Breyer has the announcement in 04-1528, Randall versus Sorrell, and the consolidated cases.
Stephen G. Breyer:
I am going to announce the judgment of the Court in this case, which is that Vermont's campaign-finance law violates the First Amendment.
There are six people who think that conclusion, but they think it for quite different reasons, and so I am announcing an opinion, in which the Chief Justice joins in whole and Justice Alito joins in part.
Now, there are two parts to this law.
The first part has to do with expenditure limits.
It tells the Governor, “You can’t spend more than $300,000,” and the limits go down so that for a state rep it is $2,000.
So the first part is expenditure limits; and the second part is contribution limits -- that is on individual and party contributions to a candidate -- and those limits vary from $400 for an individual or a party for a particular candidate for Governor down to $200 for a state rep.
Well, I overstate, because in fact those limits are not $400; they are for two elections, the primary and the final, so really it is closer to $200, depending on how you allocate it for Governor, and $100 for state rep.
And those limits apply also to political parties if they want to give some money to the candidate, and they also apply to contributions in kind.
Well, we first have to consider the expenditure limits, and on the expenditure limits -- but, remember, I am speaking just for the Chief Justice and myself -- we think there was a case, Buckley versus Valeo, a very well-known case, and that case said that expenditure limits violate the First Amendment, but contribution limits do not.
Well, we are considering expenditure limits, and in our view this Vermont statute on the expenditure-limit side is unconstitutional because of stare decisis, and we elaborate that a bit in the opinion and we see no good reason for departing from stare decisis in respect to expenditure limits.
Then the parties have argued another point in respect to expenditure limits.
That point is that, well, what they did not think of in Buckley v. Valeo is once you have contribution limits, it takes a lot more time for a candidate to raise money, and that is a problem; but we do not think it is a problem they did not think of; that is, at the time of Buckley v. Valeo, that was pointed out to the Court, and also we think it is fairly obvious that once you have low contribution limits, a candidate will have to spend more time to raise an equivalent amount of money.
So we do not really see anything new there.
And in that part of the opinion, I am joined by both the Chief Justice and Justice Alito.
Now, we turn to the contribution limits.
Now, contribution limits are difficult, and the reason they are difficult under Buckley v. Valeo and our cases is the following: with a contribution limit, it is not the case the lower the better, in our view.
The reason it is not the case the lower the better is because what you are trying to do is produce a fair electoral contest and to sort of ward off various things that might impede the fairness of that contest.
Well, no limits at all, in the judgment of the Legislature, would impede that because of corruption or appearance of corruption; but if you get too low, you can give the incumbent a major advantage, because the incumbent has name recognition, the incumbent is well-known to the press.
And therefore it is not the case, in our view, the lower the better.
Rather, if you really see First Amendment interests on both sides of this equation, there must be a lower limit somewhere.
Does this Vermont statute go below the lower limit?
Well, we think that -- and here, I am joined by the Chief and Justice Alito throughout -- we think that the Legislature has a lot of leeway in defining those lower limits, but at some point they go too far.
We have looked at this closely.
Because on its face, the limit in front of us, say, $200 or $100, depending on how you count it, that would be way, way, way lower than the limit in Buckley ever was.
That limit was $1,000 in the early 1970s for a Congressional seat.
$1,000 in 1970, if you translate the limits here back to the limits in Buckley, i.e., you adjust for inflation, you get about $56.
And so this is about 5% of what they were in Buckley.
That, it is the lowest in the nation if you look at it all in total, all in total, and certainly the lowest we have considered.